As the 2014 withdrawal date for American and British combat troops creeps ever closer the rhetoric coming from leading politicians about the great strides that have been made by Afghan forces has increased significantly. In Britain the three major parties have formed a cosy consensus with a steady drip of comments about how well Afghan troops have performed in recent operations and the great leaps forward that have been made in training the Afghan police and army.
Clearly some level of progress has been made but this isn't saying much if you consider they were starting from the bottom. In a sense the only way they could go was up but this still doesn't imply the Afghan state will be able to guarantee security and prosperity once NATO forces leave. In fact even with the current high levels of NATO support, the central government under Hamid Karzai do not hold much influence outside the main urban areas.
Within the countryside, where the majority of the population reside, it is the tribal leaders and councils who govern. In fact the local populace show more loyalty to these tribal leaderships than they do to central government. Even the police struggle to exert influence, preferring to do deals with the local warlords rather than risking conflict by keeping law and order as the central government wants.
This reluctance by the Afghan local branches of government to properly exert its influence in the tribal regions is telling as it shows the true strength and power they really have. The police and army units on the frontline may lack in professionalism and in some cases even courage but essentially it comes down to the fact that they don't feel they are genuinely backed up by the government. This lack of confidence is extremely detrimental to overall health of the state and is unlikely to be resolved any time before 2014.
Most likely the politicians in Washington and London privately accept the futility of the NATO mission, some have even made tentative steps to accept this publicly. Ed Miliband's recent comments on a visit to Afghanistan show that even among the political elite there are serious reservations as to whether the Afghan government will last much beyond 2014. This comment was quickly followed by Miliband declaring his strong support for the 2014 withdrawal plan, which shows how purely political the exit date is and has no bearing on the conditions on the ground.
Some would argue however that NATO should never have gotten involved in nation building and its original mission of defeating Al-Qaeda was completed in early 2002. The subsequent mission creep was born out of the hubris of the time, a belief that America was going to re-shape the world for a new century of dominance.
This was a deeply flawed belief and shows how little politicians at the top had studied their history. It would only take a brief period of research to see how many great powers had tried to tame Afghanistan's various tribes and bring a central order to the country. All failed and suffered great humiliating retreats which scarred the invading nation. One example of this is being explored by Rory Stewart in a new documentary series starting on the BBC.
Nevertheless even people who at the time did understand Afghanistan's brutal history believed advances in technology and modern warfare would allow NATO to be the exception to the rule. For a short period after the initial fall of Kabul there did seem to be hope for a stable Afghanistan. Billions of dollars of aid was poured into the country on regeneration, the problem was much of this did not reach the people who really needed it. The fact remained even though the Taliban had been defeated they had not simply left, they remained living in the same communities they had for generations.
You cannot simply dismiss the Taliban as an evil group who were reviled by every Afghani. They are as much the people of Afghanistan as anyone else. They have fought invaders of their land since the time of Alexander the Great and will continue to do so long after the last vestiges of NATO have been blown back through the Khyber pass.
The Taliban have not succeeded on their own however, they are a wily bunch who have been willing to join forces with the most unlikely of allies in order to achieve their goals. When the Soviet Union was attempting to impose its will on the country they found a very willing ally in the United States. When the Soviets left and the American support disappeared they found Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist buddies more than willing to fund them financially in return for safe haven.
Both these alliances were friendships of convenience as is the current close relationship they have with elements in the Pakistani intelligence and military communities. This relationship has grown out of the immense amount of paranoia Pakistan directs towards India. Pakistan are willing to accept a brutal, destructive group running Afghanistan just so long as they are their brutal group and not India's.
This attitude by Pakistan shows no sign of abating and if anything the ties are being strengthened the closer we get to the 2014 deadline. Pakistan recognise Hamid Karzai's government will be acutely vulnerable once he is unable to call upon the power of NATO to maintain his governments sphere of influence across the country.
Even if Pakistan could be persuaded that their main security threat is no longer India they still have yet to admit that a relationship exists. The irony is the true threat to the Pakistan state is from internal terrorism being directed from the tribal areas of northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. The Taliban may have severed most of their ties with Al-Qaeda but there are still individuals within both groups who share information and at times work together.
There are many more factors that could be listed which would highlight the futility of NATO's mission but fundamentally Afghanistan is a country of disparate tribes and peoples who have for centuries been ordered and cajoled by foreign powers to come together as one unified nation state. The British Empire failed and so did the Soviet Union, at some point NATO will face up this but not before more blood and treasure is expended for a mission that since early 2002 has been fundamentally flawed. If this analysis is correct then all we have exerted for the last ten years has been for nothing and serious questions need to be asked of the British and American governments.
Maybe if only half the amount of energy that has been exhausted on constant inquiries on Iraq could be directed towards Afghanistan then maybe we'll develop a proper understanding of this conflict which will hopefully act as a warning for future generations who might be considering an intervention in this most unforgiving land.
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